Whatever side you take on the MicroSoft anti-trust issue, one fact is abundantly clear: Windows is here to stay. Being one of the newer operating systems on the block, it only seems right that we should try to get this operating system to run under emulation. The first emulator to accomplish this is Virtual PC (see article). But because Virtual PC and SoftWindows take such a different tack on emulation in general, Insignia Solutions’ SoftWindows product became the latecomer to the Windows 98 emulation scene.
A little background information is required here on just why it took SoftWindows a bit longer to arrive on the Windows 98 emulation front. With Virtual PC, Connectix Corporation has tried to create, in software, an entire PC–right down to the IDE interface, EtherNet chips, and the motherboard. By doing this, according to Connectix, the best possible compatibility can be achieved (for more information on Virtual PC, please click here). Insignia Solutions, on the other hand, has taken a different approach. Insignia believes that this approach can only be taken so far, and that in order to gain more and more speed, Windows must be made more and more Mac-like. To that end, Insignia has written special drivers for Windows 98 that will allow the Mac OS to accomplish many of the tasks that would normally have to be run through emulation. For example, whenever one tries to format a floppy disk in SoftWindows, the Mac OS takes on this task and circumvents the normal Windows floppy formatting, making the format a bit faster; nothing needs to be emulated, because the Mac is allowed to do this task natively. But, whenever there is a major code change in Windows, these Insignia drivers may become incompatible. For example, back in June when I tried to install Windows 98 on SoftWindows 95 v. 5.03, major conflicts arose. Elements such as the mouse pointer and the hi-color (16-bit) display driver refused to work correctly under Windows 98. So, in order to get Windows 98 to run correctly under its emulator, Insignia needed to modify these existing drivers in order to not only insure Windows 98 compatibility, but to also make sure that general, day to day applications would still run under emulation and that speed was still kept a priority (this was a must, seeing that Windows 98 requires a bit more horsepower than 95 ever did).
Enter SoftWindows 98 (and SoftWindows 95 v. 5.04, available for download off the company’s website). Insignia updated its drivers for Windows 98, and now MicroSoft’s newest addition to the Windows family runs. But, how well does it run?
Upon first running SoftWindows 98, it’s pretty easy to see that the custom graphics routines built into the product pay off quite nicely. Compared to Virtual PC’s general GUI (Graphical User Interface) functions such as drawing and redrawing menus, scrolling, and opening windows, I would have to say that SoftWindows 98 is probably twice as fast. This is because the graphics routines are made more Mac OS native, and therefore there is less that needs to be emulated. Even in 16-bit hi color, the interface is smooth, and even dragging windows opaquely is quick and responsive. Changing screen resolutions is even a breeze, even when compared with the real Windows 98. Instead of having to go into the Display Control Panel in Windows and resetting the screen resolution (and, in many cases, having to restart the computer), SoftWindows allows the user to dynamically re-size the Windows 98 desktop just as easily as resizing any Mac window. This is done by holding down the Command and Option (Alt) keys, and using the mouse to resize the Windows desktop. For a really strange Windows screen resolution, see the Screenshots section. Insignia is to be commended for this.
Sound is also fast and smooth, because SoftWindows includes a custom sound driver that basically makes the Mac’s sound hardware act as a native sound card within Windows. Nothing needs to be emulated, and so sound input/output is fast (There are some problems with this scheme, however. See the “problems” section below).
I challenge anyone to install Windows 98 from scratch in under 10 minutes. Even on the fastest Pentium II systems, the installation of Windows 98 takes from 20-30 minutes. With SoftWindows 98, Insignia Solutions has included a fast installation scheme that will create a Windows 98 hard drive file, and install Windows 98 within 9 minutes. I was impressed.
SoftWindows 98 supports 3Dfx cards in the VooDoo I and VooDoo II flavors (it should be pointed out that Virtual PC 2.1.1 does as well). If your Macintosh has a VooDoo card installed, SoftWindows 98 will take complete advantage of it if it’s needed. Obviously, the implication here is games. Since this is a software based emulator, the more that hardware solutions are used, the faster demanding applications such as games will run. Since the emulated Pentium processor doesn’t have to process the actual graphics, which are handled by the VooDoo card, games will naturally run faster.
Networking is also very nicely handled quite nicely. As with its predecessors in SoftWindows 4.0 and 5.0 and up, SoftWindows 98 includes a custom Winsock.dll file that basically turns all internet activity over to the Mac OS. Normally on a Windows computer, whenever a TCP/IP application tries to call up internet activity (e.g., a Netscape tries to load a webpage) and the computer isn’t connected to the internet, Windows will launch dialup networking in order to dial up an ISP and connect to the internet. In SoftWindows, dialup networking isn’t even installed under Windows 98 (and, in fact, it shouldn’t be, as this will interfere with Insignia’s custom drivers). Whenever the Windows 98 tries to access the internet, the Mac OS’ networking software is automatically called upon to dial up the ISP. This has some significant advantages over using the Windows 98 dialup networking. First, this scheme is faster. The reason is that, again, as with the graphics and sound, there is little that needs to be emulated. Because the Mac’s standard Open Transport networking software is used to pull data off the internet, the network activity is Mac OS native. And with the infusion of more PowerPC native code in the recent release of Mac OS 8.5, this helps even more. Essentially, Windows 98 and all its TCP/IP applications simply become another TCP/IP application for the Mac OS. As far as the Mac’s TCP/IP is concerned, there’s no difference between calling up Internet Explorer under Windows 98 and calling up Netscape Communicator under Mac OS. It’s a pretty neat system, although there are still some problems associated with this networking scheme.
SoftWindows 98 doesn’t have the nifty drag and drop abilities of Virtual PC (which allows files of almost any type to be dragged and dropped from the Mac environment to the PC desktop), but it does include the ability to select parts or all of the Windows/DOS screen and drag these parts to the Mac desktop. This is very handy for making quick screen grabs. And, SoftWindows allows for PC Executable files (those ending in .exe) to be double-clicked on the Mac. This will launch SoftWindows 98, and once Windows 98 loads, the PC program will run normally. I have my Netscape Communicator set up to use SoftWindows 98 as a “helper application” so that whenever a PC file is downloaded from the internet, SoftWindows is automatically run. The only problem with this scheme is that if SoftWindows is already loaded and running, double-clicking on a PC program on the Mac side fails to launch this PC program in SoftWindows.
As can maybe be expected, there are always problems with any software product. I found a few with SoftWindows 98. The first, and most important, is compatibility. This is the most important aspect for an emulator, because no matter how fast it can scroll graphics or draw windows or menus, all is lost if that particular program that you want to run won’t run. Just some of the programs that I found that wouldn’t run were not out of the way, off the wall, obscure applications. How does QuickTime 3.0 sound? When I tried to install QT 3.0, I ended up reinstalling Windows 98. The entire hard drive image was completely trashed. Another program that I tried to install worked for a short while (about a day), and then started to interfere with the Windows 98 bootup. This program is Mcafee VirusScan 3.2. Seeing that the viruses are a very big part of Windows life, a virus scanner is very important. I should point out, however, that versions below VirusScan 3.2 still do work. And, there are some games that just refuse to run under SoftWindows. An example is Frogger and Tomb Raider III. Both of these games are 3Dfx based. I must point out that these programs work just fine under Virtual PC.
As nice as the TCP/IP scheme is under SoftWindows 98, it is still plagued with problems. For example, when trying to play the demo for Descent III: Freespace, my modem started to dial up my ISP for no reason at all. When trying to run this game under Virtual PC, things went off without a hitch. Other programs that use TCP/IP networking that gave SoftWindows 98 a problem include PCanywhere, Pegasus Mail, ICQ, and Jackhammer, all of which run just fine under Virtual PC.
And, these are just minor gripes, but I would like to see several things changed and/or added to future versions of SoftWindows. First of all, I wish that there were a more streamlined way of screen resolution/color resolution modification for full screen. Again, I must look at Virtual PC. It has a very nice full screen mode, and when the screen color mode and/or pixel resolution changes, the result is transparent to the users. With SoftWindows, if the screen resolution is changed and the color content changed and you want full screen abilities, you must manually modify the Mac’s screen resolution to match that of the Windows resolution. SoftWindows strengths lie in its windowing modes, where the user can dynamically resize the Windows 98 screen size. But in full screen modes, SoftWindows has some work ahead. Also, sometimes standard dialup networking through Windows 98 is needed. I would like to see the ability to switch between standard, classic Windows TCP/IP networking and the Insignia scheme. This can be done now, but the user needs to move files in and out of the Windows and Windows\system folders; a real pain.
[The following was added after this review was posted. I forgot to add that every once in awhile, almost at random, the specialized sound driver used in SoftWindows 98 “disappears”. When this happens, the SoundBlaster Pro emulation kicks in, which is not nearly as efficient as the native Insignia driver. The only way I’ve found to cure this is printed here; remember to go to STEP 11.]
I still see SoftWindows 98 as a product in development. With all of the new overhead added to Windows 98, adding and tapping into Windows 98 to make it more Mac OS native as Insignia has done is bound to cause some problems. (And, I will tell anyone who hasn’t used Windows 98 that it’s not faster than Windows 95; with MicroSoft’s obsession with taking over the desktop and conquering Netscape Communications Corporation, it has added more and more code that makes Windows 98 slower than its predecessor. This is, of course, my opinion. Other opinions are welcome.) There are advantages to Insignia’s scheme, as I’ve noted that general functions in Windows 98 become faster and more fluid when the Mac OS can perform these functions natively. But, with Connectix’s scheme of emulating the PC right down to the motherboard, compatibility is the strongest achievement. I feel torn; I like SoftWindows 98’s user experience and networking, but when a program fails to run under SoftWindows 98, the chances are very good that Virtual PC will have no problems with this program.